Mid-Atlantic Spring Turkey Hotspots

Though excellent gobbler hunting can be found throughout Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey, these areas of each state are the best of the best.

Photo by D. Toby Thompson

By Jeff Knapp

Hunters throughout the mid-Atlantic region have good reason for high expectations for this spring's gobbler hunt. Record harvests or near-record harvests have been occurring on a regular basis the past few years, and more of the same can be expected for this coming season. Though less-than-ideal nesting conditions were experienced in some areas, reproduction was good for the most part.

In response to expansions of wild turkey populations, and stable or increasing numbers in established areas, hunting opportunities are on the increase. Seasons in some states have been lengthened in recent years and permit allocations increased in some cases. There is a lot to be excited about.

Here's a look at wild turkey hunting in the three-state area, as well as some picks on where to go this spring.

Maryland spring gobbler hunters fared quite well last season, harvesting 3,030 birds, the second-best season on record. Free State hunters set a record during the 2001 spring hunt, bagging 3,075 bearded birds.

Officials of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources' (DNR) Wildlife Heritage Division say spring turkey hunter numbers have increased over the years as the quality of hunting has improved. The number has leveled off in recent seasons to about 13,000 nimrods. Generally speaking, turkey hunting is available to sportsmen throughout the state. Particular increases in populations have been seen in the southern and lower Eastern Shore areas.

The top five harvest counties for Maryland from last year are: Garrett with 471, Allegany with 323, Dorchester with 315, Washington with 278, and Worcester tallying 277. This represents counties from the western portion of the state, the turkey's traditional range in Maryland. Clearly, the wild turkey is a bird for all Maryland hunters.

A significant number of birds were bagged during the early youth hunt, as youngsters downed 156 gobblers last season.

"The flock is doing very well," noted DNR biologist Steven Bittner. "Expansion is continuing in the eastern and southern portion of the state. In the western part, where we've had birds for 50 years, things look pretty good."

Echoing success programs from around the eastern United States, the management of Maryland's wild turkey population has led to an increase in hunting opportunities. It can all be traced back to efforts that began two decades ago.

"The main reason for our excellent wild turkey population has been the trap-and-transfer program, which we got involved in back in the late '70s," said Bittner. "We released birds from the western part of the state into other areas up until 1997. We released over 1,000 birds at about 50 different release sites in those years. Those birds have spread out from those release sites, so we have birds throughout."

Trap-and-transfer programs have re-established wild turkey populations all across the eastern United States. But the rugged mountains of western Maryland never completely lost their birds, and provided a source for game mangers to tap.

"Back in the '40s, '50s and '60s, we had wild turkeys in western Maryland, but not in good numbers," Bittner explained. "As the habitat improved over the past 30 years, populations have rebounded. Habitat also improved during that time frame east of Frederick County, but there was no way for those birds to get there."

In central and eastern Maryland, wild turkeys can now be found in small wood lots, ones of 50 to 100 acres, which are mixed in with agricultural lands. While the expanses of mature timber found in western Maryland are very attractive, hunters willing to gain access to such private lands will find excellent spring turkey hunting close to urban and agricultural areas. But since so much public land is found in the mountains, that area remains a good pick for the Maryland spring gobbler hunter.

"Most of our public land tracts are out west, so for that reason that's where I would direct hunters," said Bittner. "Green Ridge State Forest is one of our most popular areas. It has a lot of hunters, but it also has a lot of birds. The habitat there is made up of ridges and valleys, with shale slopes, covered primarily with oak and hickory woodlands."

Green Ridge State Forest covers over 38,000 acres, and is located primarily in Allegany County. While the forest covers a vast area, the center of the tract is found about seven miles east of Flintstone. Primitive camping only is permitted in the forest. For additional information, or to purchase a map of the area, write to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, State Forest and Park Service, Tawes State Office Building, E3, 589 Taylor Ave., Annapolis, MD 21401.

Additional pubic hunting areas on either side of Green Ridge State Forest are available to hunters. The Billmeyer Wildlife Management Area (WMA) is found to the east of the state forest, while Warrior Mountain WMA is located to the west of the state forest. Both WMAs have excellent wild turkey populations. The Billmeyer tract contains 1,066 acres, and is about 16 miles west of Frederick. The Warrior Mountain WMA encompasses 3,950 acres, and is located about eight miles east of Cumberland.

"Also, there's Savage River State Forest," stated Bittner. "It's large, with scattered parcels. It's comprised of northern hardwoods, with lots of cherry mixed in with the oaks, and is located on a plateau," he said. Savage River State Forest covers over 52,000 acres. Like Green Ridge, only primitive camping is permitted. More information on this forest is available at the address above.

While public land is limited in eastern Maryland, it does exist.

"The problem down east is that most of our areas are small," Bittner explained. "But we've got the Pocomoke State Forest, which is about 13,000 acres. All of the wildlife management areas probably have turkeys on them, but many of these areas are only 300 or 400 acres. These areas exhibit a lot of pine in their woodlands." Savvy hunters will key in on the expanding gobbler population in eastern Maryland, as Worcester County had the third largest gobbler kill last spring.

Maryland's spring hunt will run from April 15 through May 18, and no additional permits are required. The youth hunt, open to hunters 16 years of age and younger, will take place on April 12. Consult your regulations book for more information on the specifics of the youth hunt.

There is a two-bird bag limit, unless you killed a turkey during the fall season, in which case it's a one-bird bag for the spring hunt. Only one gobbler can be killed per day. Successful hunters must take their birds to a check-in station. Hunting hours run from a half-hour prior to sunrise to noon. Weapons are limited to shotguns and archery equipment. Check your book of regulations for shot restrictions, and other details relevant to spring gobbler hunting in Maryland.

Extensive information, including additional details regarding the state's wildlife management areas, can be obtained by visiting the division's Web site: www.state.md.us.

According to officials of the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife (DFW), the state's wild turkey population is in excellent condition. Harvest rates echo this, with a string of record spring harvests having been set for a number of subsequent years.

During the 2002 spring season, Garden State hunters bagged a record 3,720 gobblers. The year prior to that, 2,854 toms were tagged. The 2002 harvest represents a 16.2 percent increase over that of the previous spring season.

The DFW manages New Jersey's turkey hunting via seven areas.

"Spring gobbler hunting has become increasingly popular over the years since our first season," said division director Bob McDowell. "As wild turkey populations have expanded, our agency has been able to provide additional hunting opportunity to sportsmen and women throughout the state. Our first season, held in 1981, was open for three weeks and was limited to 900 hunters.

"An increase in season length and permit quotas - the division issued approximately 20,640 permits - as well as excellent hunting weather are likely responsible for the record harvest of turkeys."

According to biologist Tony McBride, permit allocations have seen increases during the past several years, a reflection of the increase in the wild turkey population. Hunter success rates for spring gobblers in New Jersey run about 17 percent. Last year's harvest witnessed an increase in success rate to 18 percent. Like McDowell noted, as permit allocations increase, so does the annual harvest.

Much of the public land available to the spring gobbler hunter lies in the northern portion of the state. Biologist McBride said three of the better areas are the Newark Watershed Area, Stokes State Forest and the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. The first spot is in Turkey Management Area 6, while the last two are found in areas 1, 2 and 3.

"These areas offer plenty of prime turkey habitat," said McBride. "They are comprised mainly of typical northern hardwoods."

Stokes State Forest covers over 15,000 acres, and is located near Culverts Inlet. The Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area encompasses 70,000 acres, and is located around Columbia. Camping is available in both of these areas.

McBride said public land is at a premium in the southern portion of New Jersey; however, he did recommend the Peaslee WMA. "There are some pine barrens there, and some southern oak forest," he said.

The Peaslee tract covers about 22,000 acres, a significant chunk of public land for this portion of the state. Peaslee WMA is found in Cumberland County (and partly in Atlantic County), east of Millville.

Spring gobbler permits are allocated on an area-by-area basis, and are also specific to certain segments of the season. Consult the booklet supplied with your hunting license for the exact dates for each area. More information can be obtained from the division's Web site at: www.state. nj.dep/fgw.

New Jersey spring gobbler hunters are limited to the use of shotguns or bow and arrow. Hunting hours run from a half-hour prior to sunrise to noon. Lotteries are conducted in the spring as a means of allocating permits. Extra turkey permits can be bought when unsold permits remain for a given zone. The zones with the best turkey populations tend to sell out. Be sure to check out your hunting digest for additional details on New Jersey turkey hunting regulations.

Ken Reynolds is a program manager for the Delaware Division of Fish and Wildlife, and as such is responsible for helping to manage that state's wild turkey population.

"We estimate that we have about 3,500 wild turkeys in the state," reported Reynolds. "They are located primarily in the central and southern portions of the state, though we do have some scattered flocks in New Castle County. We feel that the population is still growing and expanding, though not at the rate that it was a few years ago when we were first starting out. Based on the habitat we have, I feel Delaware could support about 5,000 to 6,000 birds."

Wildlife biologists aren't sure when the state's wild turkey populations disappeared, but it wasn't until 1984 when the division began efforts to re-establish flocks to the state's woodlands.

"It's my understanding that we were the last state in the country to get into the restoration program," said Reynolds. In '84, we obtained birds from Pennsylvania, Vermont and New Jersey. Those birds were released at two different sites. Once the populations from those original releases began to expand, we trapped and transferred turkeys from them to other areas of the state."

Over the years, the program has received additional shots in the arm via turkeys from South Carolina and Virginia. Reynolds said the agency is pretty much done with moving birds around, and future increases in the turkey population will be the result of natural expansion.

Delaware had its first spring season in 1991. During the best spring hunt, which took place in 1998, 151 gobblers were bagged.

"Based on the number of permitted hunters that we have, which runs about 1,000 sportsmen, we have roughly a 10 to 15 percent success rate," noted the manager.

"We lease some land in Sussex County that we call the Industrial Forest Land,'' said Reynolds. "It's a good area to apply for. There's also the Little Creek Wildlife Area in eastern Kent County, which is a good bet. A third choice would be the Nanticoke Wildlife Area, which is in southwestern Sussex County. The reason for choosing those three areas is primarily because they are fairly remote, as things go in Delaware. The two areas in Sussex County are pretty heavily forested, and these areas give one the chance to get away from the hunting crowd."

Spring gobbler hunters must have a permit, the application for which is located in the booklet supplied with the hunting licenses. Applications can also be made on-line at the agency's Web site: www.dnrec.state.de.us/fw. Consult this booklet for additional details on seasons regarding public and private lands. Shotguns and archery equipment are permissible. Hours of the spring hunt run from a half-hour prior to sunrise to 1 p


First-time turkey hunters must attend a one-day safety class. Call (302) 323-5336 for the availability and location of the classes.

Regardless of the state in which you're hunting this spring, be sure to familiarize yourself with the latest rules and regulations of each. Successfully managing wild turkey populations requires involved regulations, as well as the cooperation of sportsmen.

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